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Great Non-Pitching Seasons

 

     When baseball fans look back, seasons often emerge when their favorite players starred for their favorite teams.  Which of those seasons were the best - Ruth's 1927?  How about DiMaggio's 1941, the year of The Streak?  Was Mantle's or Yaz's Triple Crown season more impressive?

     Using statistical research, I have compiled some of the single greatest years that non-pitchers have put together in the last 100 years.  To measure a player's value, I considered three things: offensive contribution, defensive contribution and leadership.  The first can be measured by looking at Batting Runs - a Total Baseball measure that calculates the runs a player contributed beyond a league average replacement - and Bill James' runs created formula, which uses a variety of offensive statistics to estimate how many runs for which a player is responsible.  The latter can be measured by looking at a player's range factor, which measures the number of defensive plays a player made relative to the typical player at his defensive position, and then considering errors committed.  Finally, I adjust the above statistics by my own subjective evaluation of the player's contribution.

     Based on the foregoing here is my list.  In order to eliminate certain players from dominating the list, I only allowed one season from each star to qualify:

 

1. Babe Ruth - 1921 (see also 1923, 1920, 1927)

2. Ted Williams - 1941 (see also 1942, 1946, 1947, 1957)

3. Barry Bonds - 2001 (see also 2002, 1992, 1993, 1996)

4. Honus Wagner - 1908 (see also 1905, 1906, 1900)

5. Cal Ripken, Jr. - 1984 (see also 1991)

6. Mickey Mantle - 1956 (see also 1957)

7. Nap Lajoie - 1904 (see also 1901)

8. Rogers Hornsby - 1924 (see also 1925, 1922)

9. Joe Morgan - 1975 (see also 1976)

10. Carl Yastrzemski - 1967

11. Lou Gehrig - 1934 (see also 1927, 1936)

12. Jimmie Foxx - 1932 (see also 1938)

13. Ty Cobb - 1917 (see also 1911)

14. Rickey Henderson - 1990

15. Mark McGwire - 1998 (see also 1996)

16. Al Rosen - 1953 

17. Stan Musial - 1948

18. Tris Speaker - 1912

19. George Brett - 1980

20. Willie Mays - 1955 (see also 1965)

21. Joe DiMaggio - 1939 (see also 1941)

22. Frank Robinson - 1966

23. Jeff Bagwell - 1994

 

 

1. Babe Ruth - 1921, 1923, 1920 and 1927

 

1920: 54 HR, 137 RBI, 158 R, .376 AVG, 388 TB, .532 OBA, .847 SLG, 150 BB

1921: 59 HR, 171 RBI, 177 R, .378 AVG, 457 TB, .512 OBA, .846 SLG, 145 BB

1923: 41 HR, 131 RBI, 151 R, .393 AVG, 399 TB, .545 OBA, .764 SLG, 170 BB

1927: 60 HR, 164 RBI, 158 R, .356 AVG, 417 TB, .486 OBA, .772 SLG, 137 BB

 

   How does one choose among these seasons?  Babe Ruth led the league in home runs 12 times, slugging percentage 13 times and on-base average 10 times, and whittling Ruth's career down to a manageable number of great seasons is a task by itself - his 1931, 1924, 1926, 1930, and 1932 seasons were all better than his historic 1927 campaign, if you believe the runs created per 27 outs formula.

     So I chose these four seasons because they represent his four highest single-season slugging percentage numbers (these represent four of the top five single-season marks in baseball history, trailing only Bonds' Ruthian performance in 2001).  In 1920, Ruth's first year with the Yankees, his adjusted production (SLG + OBA, adjusted for ballpark effects and league average) was 252, a career high, and his 16.53 runs created per 27 outs was the highest number recorded in the last century.  His 1920 total production ranked as the highest of all time until 2002.

     But his 1921 and 1923 numbers are almost as good - he posted 15.47 RC/27 and 14.83 RC/27 respectively - at a time when American League teams were averaging roughly 4.8 runs scored per game.  Only Ted Williams in 1941 and 1957, and then Barry Bonds in 2001, have been able to crack 14.00 RC/27.

     Ruth's fielding was better in those later years, but it was 1921 that he took his team to the World Series for the first time (they lost to the Giants).  In 1927, he was a part of a Murderer's Row that included Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel and Tony Lazzeri, and his influence was diminished in relative terms; the Yankees won the Series in 1923, 1926-1928, and again in 1932, but their first trip to the Big Dance was where Ruth cemented his reputation as the game's greatest player.  In 1921, Ruth set an all-time record (still unrivalled) for total bases; in 1923, he set the modern day record for walks (broken in 2001 by Bonds), and his on-base average of .545 is the second highest all time (Williams topped it in 1941).  So either 1921 or 1923 is a credible choice, though in my view his 1921 season is marginally superior.

 

 

2. Ted Williams - 1941, 1957, 1942, 1946, 1947

 

1941: 37 HR, 120 RBI, 135 R, .406 AVG, 335 TB, .551 OBA, .735 SLG, 145 BB

1957: 38 HR, 87 RBI, 96 R, .388 AVG, 307 TB, .528 OBA, .731 SLG, 119 BB

1942: 36 HR, 137 RBI, 109 R, .311 AVG, 338 TB, .499 OBA, .648 SLG, 145 BB

1946: 38 HR, 123 RBI, 142 R, .342 AVG, 343 TB, .497 OBA, .667 SLG, 156 BB

1947: 32 HR, 114 RBI, 125 R, .343 AVG, 335 TB, .499 OBA, .634 SLG, 162 BB

 

     Over his career, Ted Williams career RC/27 outs is a whopping 11.50 - that means that a team of Teds would have scored 11.5 runs per game.  Just to put that in context, there have been just 40 single seasons where any player has topped 11.5 RC/27 this century - Williams has 7 of those, and Babe Ruth has 9 of them.  Williams gives us a number of great years to choose from, but his 1942 Triple Crown performance is a good place to start, as does his memorable 1941 campaign, his pennant-winning season in 1946 and his second Triple Crown in 1947.  (Just think - he missed 1943, 1944 and 1945 to the military!  What could have happened in those peak years?)

     While 1941 was a bit of live year in baseball (the league ERA was 4.15), 1942, 1946, 1947 and 1957 all had league ERAs of 3.50 to 3.75, substantially below the high-4's we've been seeing lately.  So it's not out of context to note that based on his on-base average numbers in these seasons, he was on the basepaths every other time he went to the plate.  Of the top 15 seasons in OBA since 1920, Williams has 7 of them - Ruth has 5.  Since Mickey Mantle in 1962, no one has cleared an OBA of .480.

     Of these seasons, 1941 was arguably the best sabermetrically - his .406 batting average hasn't been matched since, and the .551 OBA was the all-time single season record until 2002.  (See Barry Bonds below).

 

 

His 16.09 RC/27 outs was a career high, and trails only Ruth's 1920 this century.  His 1942 and 1947 Triple Crown seasons are also appealing, and in 1946 he took the Red Sox to the World Series - of course, he only hit .200 (5-25, 5 BB) there and went 0-4 in Game 7, which the Sox lost 4-3.  And in 1957, at the age of 41, Williams established himself as the best "old hitter ever posting a slugging percentage that would go unmatched until 1994, when the ball began to fly out of AL ballparks.

     While 1941, 1957, 1942 and 1946 are virtually identical, and 1947 was just a step below, I'll take 1941.  It had the cache of the .400 season, and by 1942, some talent had begun to leave the league as a result of the war.  In 1957, his range in the field had diminished, and his defensive contribution was somewhat lower than even his mediocre mid-career numbers; plus he missed 20 games, diminishing his offensive contribution.

     Another reason to choose 1941 over the other years is the exclamation point that Teddy Ballgame stamped on the end of it - going into the final double-header of the year, he had 179 hits in 448 at-bats, for a batting average of .399553571.  Since that would have been rounded up to .400, he could have sat out the games and protected his stats - the Red Sox were 17 games behind the Yankees so the games were meaningless.  In the first game of the double-header, the 23-year-old went 3-5 and lifted his average to .404.  In the night cap, he could have sat out again, this time protecting a legitimate .400 performance - instead, he risked it and went 2-3, lifting his average to .406.  Such dedication and courage ought to be rewarded. 

 

 

3. Barry Bonds - 2001, 2002, 1992, 1993, 1996

 

2001: 73 HR, 137 RBI, 129 R, .328 AVG, 411 TB, .515 OBA, .863 SLG, 177 BB, 13 SB

2002: 46 HR, 110 RBI, 117 R, .370 AVG, 312 TB, .582 OBA, .799 SLG, 198 BB, 9 SB

1992: 34 HR, 103 RBI, 109 R, .311 AVG, 365 TB, .456 OBA, .624 SLG, 127 BB, 39 SB

1993: 46 HR, 123 RBI, 129 R, .336 AVG, 295 TB, .458 OBA, .677 SLG, 126 BB, 39 SB

1996: 42 HR, 129 RBI, 122 R, .336 AVG, 318 TB, .461 OBA, .615 SLG, 151 BB, 40 SB

 

     It may not surprise you to learn that Barry Bonds' fourth MVP season ranks among the best of all time - after all, he shattered the single-season marks for home runs and walks, and his slugging percentage of .863 was the highest of all time.  His total production (SLG + OBA) was 1.378, the second highest of all time, just behind Babe Ruth's 1920 season.  He created over 181 runs, an astonishing number that tops even Babe Ruth's best years, and his runs created per 27 outs was also among the all-time highs ever registered: 15.97.

     No one had seen an OBA this high since Ted Williams in 1957.  And he did all this a pitcher's park: Pac Bell Park, which depressed run production by about 15% during the 2001-2001 campaigns.

 

     In 2002, Bonds was arguably just as effective.  Although his power totals dropped substantially, he became the oldest batting champion ever, took his team to the World Series, and simply blasted past his own record for walks.

 

He also set the all-time single-season high and for RC in 27 outs, registering a mind-boggling 18.69.

 

He also set an all-time high for intentional passes, with 68, shattering Willie McCovey's record of 45.  And this time he broke Babe Ruth's all-time total average mark, getting to 1.381, giving Bonds two of the top three total production numbers of all-time.

 

     Finally, he set the all-time mark for on-base average, registering a .582 mark, vaulting him past Ted Williams' memorable 1941 season.

 

     So, which season was better?  In 2001, he set the all-time home run record, and set a record for slugging average; in 2002, he set a record for OBA and total average.  In 2001, he created more runs (195 vs. 181); but in 2002, he made fewer outs (254 vs. 320).

     Do those extra 66 outs - 66 more swings of the bat for his team - compensate for the 14 extra runs?  With his team scoring around 6 runs a game (i.e. 6 runs per 27 outs), it looks like a wash.  The better the hitters behind you, the more valuable the hitter is who takes walks and gets fewer outs - in Bonds' case, he didn't have a lot of great hitters behind him in either 2001 or 2002.  So I take the 2001 season, where he created more runs by himself and was more of a home threat - but only by a nose.   

 

     Note that his third MVP season, in 1993, may also be one of the top five seasons in baseball history.  Bonds put on a display of power and speed that the major leagues hadn't seen since Willie Mays.  His on-base average was the second-highest in the National League in the expansion era (trailing Joe Morgan in 1975), his slugging percentage was the highest in the majors during the expansion era, and his adjusted production (SLG + OBA, adjusted for ballpark effects and league average) in both 1993 and in 1992 (his second MVP season) was 207, the highest since Willie McCovey in 1969.

     Remember that back in those days, a lot fewer runs were scored - in 1992, the league ERA was just 3.50, and in 1993 it was 4.04.  As offense soared in the late 1990s (the average NL era rose to around 4.20 from 1994 to 1998, surged to over 4.50 in 1999 and 2000 and stood at 4.35 in 2001 - it was over 4.80 in the American League throughout all but one of these years, registering 4.65 in 1998) a few players have topped Bonds' on-base and slugging figures from the early 1990s, but his relative production numbers from 1992 and 1993 stand as the fifth and sixth highest (behind Mark McGwire in 1998, McCovey in '69 and Bonds in 2001 and 2002) of the expansion era.

     Even more remarkable, Bonds attained these figures despite a serious ballpark disadvantage; in 1992, Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium - though generally a neutral park - depressed home runs by 25%.  1993 was even worse - Bonds moved to Candlestick Park in San Francisco, which was always tough on hitters and which reduced scoring by 17% that season. 

     Bonds added several dimensions to his performance that the other players of the expansion era (McGwire, Jeff Bagwell, Frank Thomas and Edgar Martinez) haven't been able to match.  Bonds stole 39 bases against just 8 CS, in 1992, and added 29 steals (versus 12 CS) in 1993.  In both years, he also played Gold Glove defense - his above-average range and extremely low error rate (3 errors in 1992 and 5 in 1993) saved, according to Total Baseball, 11 runs in 1992 and 5 in 1993, which is enough to make him the most complete player of our generation.  Although his 1992 season is ranked by Total Baseball as a little higher than 1993 (and the fourth best season all time), I believe that the two seasons are basically identical - the discrepancy lies in TB's flawed measure of defensive contribution, which relies on volatile statistics like putouts and assists to assess fielding runs.  But in 1992, he did get his team to the post-season and within one inning of the World Series - although he hit only .261 in the NLCS, he made it to the basepaths 12 times (more than anyone else in the Series except David Justice).

     In 1996, Bonds put up one more year for the record books - another year of tremendous offensive production, plus 40 steals (against just 7 CS), terrific baserunning and superb defense.

 

 

4. Honus Wagner - 1908, 1900, 1904, 1905

 

1908: 10 HR, 109 RBI, 100 R, .354 AVG, 308 TB, .415 OBA, .542 SLG, 54 BB, 53 SB

1900: 4 HR, 100 RBI, 107 R, .381 AVG, 302 TB, .434 OBA, .573 SLG, 41 BB, 38 SB

1904: 4 HR, 75 RBI, 97 R, .349 AVG, 255 TB, .423 OBA, .520 SLG, 59 BB, 53 SB

1905: 6 HR, 101 RBI, 114 R, .363 AVG, 277 TB, .427 OBA, .505 SLG, 54 BB, 51 SB

 

     The greatest shortstop of them all, Honus Wagner won 7 batting titles in the early 1900s while playing the most difficult defensive position with aplomb.  In 1908, he led the National League in hits (with 201), batting average, slugging percentage, on-base average, stolen bases, total bases and RBI.

     Maybe his stats don't look so hot when you compare them those posted by Bonds and Babe Ruth in their best seasons ... but then, neither Bonds nor Ruth played in 1908, the height of the Dead Ball Era and the lowest-scoring season in National League history.  A typical game in 1908 included 6.6 runs scored by both teams, combined.  In that context, Wagner's season looks mighty impressive because it was.

     What is most telling is how dominant Wagner was when compared to the other top hitters: his .542 slugging was 90 points better than Mike Donlin's .452 (only five players even slugged .400 or better!).  He led in OBA, one of only three players above .365.  He led in total bases by 308 to 268.  He led in batting average by .354 to .334, and was one of just five players to hit .300.  He led in RBI by just three (109 to 106), but only five players knocked in as many as 68.  He also led in hits, doubles, triples and stolen bases and was second in home runs, while playing a very good shortstop.

 

 

5. Cal Ripken, Jr. - 1984, 1991

 

1984: 27 HR, 86 RBI, 103 R, .304 AVG, 327 TB, .375 OBA, .510 SLG, 71 BB

1991: 34 HR, 114 RBI, 99 R, .323 AVG, 368 TB, .374 OBA, .566 SLG, 53 BB

 

    The first of Ripken's two MVP seasons was in 1983, when he hit .318, popped 27 HR and drove in 102 runs.  He led the league in runs scored and in base hits that year.  But in 1984, he put up almost identical numbers in terms of slugging percentage and on-base average; he also quietly put together the finest fielding season for any American League shortstop in at least 20 years, and maybe ever, right up there with Ozzie Smith's 1980 and 1984 and even Rabbit Maranville's 1914.

     He got to and made 16% more balls than the league average shortstop, a stunning achievement - Ozzie Smith did something similar in 1980, but in all of his seasons in St. Louis he only beat Ripken's 1984 relative range factor mark once.  The sure-handed Ripken was always a fine fielder, leading the AL in putouts, assists and double plays 6, 7 and 8 times, and in fielding percentage 4 times, but 1984 was his best year by a considerable margin.  According to Total Baseball, Ripken in 1984 saved as many runs with his glove as Smith did in 1980 - combine that with his hitting, which was equivalent to his 1983 MVP performance, and you have one of the greatest complete seasons of all time.

     Somehow, Alan Trammell won the Gold Glove in 1984 (repeating from 1983 and his fourth overall) even though he made just 494 plays to Ripken's 880.  By 1990, Ripken was acknowledged as a fine fielder and won his first Gold Glove when he posted a .996 fielding average (still an all-time record for shortstops).  In 1991, he won his second straight Gold Glove, and with his terrific offensive contribution (he led the league in total bases and was third in runs created), he posted another great all-around season that qualifies as one of the top dozen or so all-time.

 

 

6. Mickey Mantle - 1956, 1957

 

1956: 52 HR, 130 RBI, 130 R, .353 AVG, 376 TB, .464 OBA, .705 SLG, 112 BB

1957: 34 HR, 94 RBI, 121 R, .365 AVG, 315 TB, .512 OBA, .665 SLG, 146 BB

 

     Of all Mantle's great years, his Triple Crown season stands out as the most dominant, especially remarkable since he was just 24 years old.  He led the league in every major category, and his .705 slugging percentage (although bested by Ted Williams that year) remained unmatched until the live ball era of the mid-to-late 1990s.  Remember, too, that he played in Yankee Stadium, perhaps the worst ballpark for right-handed hitters ever - the center field wall stood over 460 feet away from home plate in Mantle's day, and deepest left-center (known as "Death Valley") was a mammoth 457 feet away.  The right-center power alley was a more manageable 407 feet away, but Mantle (a natural right-handed hitter) still had immense obstacles to overcome in compiling these kinds of numbers.

     But his performance in 1957 might have been even better - his adjusted total production was actually higher (that's SLG + OBA relative to the league average, adjusted for ballpark).  Run production in 1957 fell in the American League by almost half a run; in fact, the league ERA in 1956 was 4.16, higher even than the ERA in the expansion 1961 season.

     But I'll take 1956, because of his defense - he made 19% more plays than a league average center fielder, yet committed just 4 errors.  By 1957, his range was dropping considerably, and despite one good year in 1959 and a Gold Glove in 1962 (more out of respect and nostalgia than anything else) he never matched either his 370 putouts nor his 10 throwing assists of 1956.

 

 

7. Nap Lajoie - 1904, 1901

 

1901: 14 HR, 125 RBI, 145 R, .426 AVG, 350 TB, .463 OBA, .643 SLG, 24 BB

1904: 5 HR, 92 RBI, 102 R, .376 AVG, 302 TB, .413 OBA, .546 SLG, 27 BB

 

     OK, the upstart American League may not have been rich in talent in 1901, but even given the context, Lajoie was still a man among boys.  A consummate fielder who led the league in range factor and in fielding average 6 times each, Napoleon Lajoie turned in some of the best defensive seasons recorded at second base.  In fact, according to Total Baseball, no one compiled more fielding runs (essentially runs saved by a defensive player beyond what a league average player at his position would have done) throughout his career than Lajoie.

     Remember that at the turn of the century, middle infielders made a lot more plays than they do today, and so were more proportionately valuable when they played solid defense - in 1901, Lajoie's league-leading 776 defensive chances, with just 32 errors (for a league-best .960 fielding average) at second base, compares favorably to, say Roberto Alomar's best season ever - 724 defensive chances.  Now, add to the mix that Lajoie also played shortstop for 19 games, accepted 78 additional defensive chances there, and that his .975 F. Pct. at SS was a world ahead of the league average F. Pct. of .898.  (Lajoie's personal best came in 1908, when he fielded 988 chances cleanly).

     In addition to saving tons of runs with his glove, Lajoie turned in a tremendous season at the plate, leading the league in just about every category.  Back in 1901, the league batting average was .277, and the league average ERA was 3.66 - both numbers are substantially lower than the AL in recent years.  In 1904, with the league ERA dropping away to a microscopic 2.60, Lajoie put on another fireworks display from the plate - now the player/manager of the Cleveland Naps (so named in his honor), his defensive work suffered statistically but considering that his best defensive seasons were actually ahead of him (1906, 1907 and particularly 1908) this is probably due to a statistical aberration.  At any rate, even without any special contribution from his defense, his hitting alone ranks as one of the great seasons of all time.

 

 

8. Rogers Hornsby - 1924, 1925, 1922

 

1924: 25 HR, 94 RBI, 121 R, .424 AVG, 373 TB, .507 OBA, .696 SLG, 227 H

1925: 39 HR, 143 RBI, 133 R, .403 AVG, 381 TB, .489 OBA, .756 SLG, 203 H

1922: 42 HR, 152 RBI, 141 R, .401 AVG, 450 TB, .459 OBA, .722 SLG, 250 H

 

     Rogers Hornsby led the National League in on-base average, slugging percentage and batting average six straight times - a feat never matched, before or since.  In the middle of this streak, just as the live ball era was blossoming, he turned in a campaign for the ages - his 450 total bases remains an all-time high, and he led second-baggers in fielding average.  Hornsby also topped the National League with 46 doubles, 42 home runs (nobody else hit more than 26 homers).  Oh, and he batted .401, the first of three times that he'd clear the magical .400 mark.  His second Triple Crown season, in 1925, was just as impressive - again, he led the league in all major categories, though his defense suffered somewhat.

     But it is actually his 1924 season that makes my list.  Though his home run and RBI totals were substantially lower than in 1922 and 1925, his on-base average of .507 and slugging percentage of .696 generated a very high number of runs created (he actually managed to lead the league in walks, with 89, while batting .424 - a startling accomplishment.  And all this in a season when the league batting average was .283, virtually identical to the Nation League today).  The league's run production was also down substantially from the 1922 and 1925 totals (by about a half a run per game), so his accomplishments were relatively greater in value in 1924.

 

 

9. Joe Morgan - 1975, 1976

 

1975: 17 HR, 94 RBI, 107 R, .327 AVG, 253 TB, .466 OBA, .508 SLG, 132 BB, 67 SB

1976: 27 HR, 111 RBI, 113 R, .320 AVG, 272 TB, .444 OBA, .576 SLG, 114 BB, 60 SB

 

     His two MVP seasons represent some of the best all-around seasons of all time.  The first second baseman to lead the senior circuit in slugging percentage since Rogers Hornsby, Joe Morgan put up a .466 OBA in 1975 that was the highest in the majors since Ted Williams 18 years before - and it would go unmatched for another 18 years thereafter.  Relative to the league average .327 OBA, Morgan's outperformance of 139 points was even better than some other great seasons - Lou Gehrig's 1927 (123 points), or Frank Thomas' 1994 (134 points) for instance.

     Quantitatively, the 1975 and 1976 seasons are just about equal - not much sets the mapart in runs created or RC/27.  He also won Gold Gloves in both seasons.  In 1975, he stole 67 bases and was nabbed 10 times, while in 1976 he stole 60 and was clipped 9 times - both of those performances are virtually identical, adding about 14 runs to his team's totals.  In 1975, his defensive work was statistically superior - he led the NL in fielding percentage and showed above average range, while in 1976 his range factor was actually below average.  If you buy fielding statistics, which I don't always do, then 1975 seems like the better all-around season.

 

 

10. Carl Yastrzemski - 1967

 

1967: 44 HR, 121 RBI, 112 R, .326 AVG, 360 TB, .418 OBA, .622 SLG, 91 BB

 

     21 years after losing Game 7 of the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals, the Red Sox embarked on another Impossible Dream, led by another left fielder compiling an MVP season.  And relative to the league average run production (the league ERA had dropped from 3.50 to 3.23) it was almost on a par with Williams' 1947 Triple Crown campaign.  Yaz added a dimension to his game that Williams never bothered to work on - defense.  He won his third Gold Glove (of 7 in his career) in 1967, showing great range and patrolling the grass in front of Fenway's Green Monster with deft aplomb while putting his cannon arm to good use all season long.

     He was particularly effective down the stretch drive - he went 23-44 in the final 12 games, hit 5 HR and drove in 16 to single-handedly carry the BoSox into the World Series.  The race was so close that three teams would finish within a game of one another, and on the final weekend the Red Sox needed to win the last two games against the Twins to avoid a three-way tie with them and Detroit.  Yastrzemski went 7-for-8 with five RBI, including a three-run homer in the first game, and made a great throw to kill Bob Allison at second on what looked like a sure double to snuff out a Twin rally.

     In the World Series - yes, the Red Sox that one in seven games again, to the Cardinals - Yaz hit .400 and pounded out 3 home runs.  Always a great clutch hitter, Yaz went to another World Series in 1975 - yes, the Red Sox lost that one in 7 games, this time to the Cincinnati Reds - and hit .355; in the '75 ALCS, he hit .455.

 

11. Lou Gehrig - 1927, 1934

 

1934: 49 HR, 165 RBI, 128 R, .363 AVG, 409 TB, .465 OBA, .706 SLG, 109 BB

1927: 47 HR, 175 RBI, 149 R, .364 AVG, 447 TB, .474 OBA, .765 SLG, 109 BB

 

     Overshadowed by Babe Ruth early in his career and robbed of some of his veteran years by illness, Columbia Lou never really assembled the kind of year that would qualify for this list until he was 31 years old.  Even in 1927, his MVP season, he was the second fiddle to Ruth's dominant performance, and was no doubt helped greatly by the Murderer's Row of terrific hitters in front of him and with Ruth behind him.  Also hurting Gehrig's offensive statistics was his record as a baserunner - 102 lifetime steals looks pretty thin, and when stacked up against 101 lifetime caught stealings, you have to wonder what Miller Huggins was doing sending him at all, especially since getting nabbed usually meant taking the bat out of Ruth's hands.

     In 1934, with Ruth out of the way, Gehrig became the big dog, turning in a fabulous season - this was his Triple Crown performance, and he did it hitting in the American League's toughest ballpark without a lot of protection in the lineup.  This is one of the few instances wherw a "great season" was not rewarded with an MVP - this year, Mickey cochrane, the consummate player-manager of the Detroit Tigers, won the award for his work behind the plate, his .320 batting average and his leadership in taking the Tigers to a pennant, 7 games ahead of the Yankees.  Gehrig actually finished a startling fifth in the voting, behind Cochrane, two other Tigers (the great second baseman Charlie Gehringer, who hit .356 and drove in 127 runs, and School Boy Roe, who was 24-8 and had a 3.45 ERA) and a pitcher on his own team, lefty Gomez (who was 26-5, with a 2.33 ERA).  But the shortsightedness of MVP voters doesn't dissuade me from thinking that this was Gehrig's best performance.

     In 1936, Gehrig put together another huge season (.354 AVG, 49 HR, 152 RBI, 130 BB, .478 OBA, .696 SLG) and led the Yankees to a World Series win while winning the MVP award; but by then the AL league ERA had soared to 5.04 (from 4.50 in 1934 and 4.14 in 1927) and his relative contribution was probably lower than it was in the summer of '34.

 

 

12. Jimmie Foxx - 1932

 

1932: 58 HR, 169 RBI, 151 R, .364 AVG, 438 TB, .469 OBA, .749 SLG, 116 BB

1938: 50 HR, 175 RBI, 139 R, .349 AVG, 398 TB, .462 OBA, .704 SLG, 119 BB

 

     When Double-XX took the plate, 90 feet never seemed so close for the third baseman.  Trying to play while Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were still active could be hard on an ego, and the live ball years of the late 1920s and 1930s boosted production substantially.  But even comparing his stats to the league, Foxx in 1932 turned in a season of sumptuous performance.  His 58 HR just missed Ruth's mark - he actually would have caught Ruth but rain erased two of his dingers.  Foxx might have still had 60 - or more - if not for a spell in August when he suffered from an injured wrist.  Five times he hit the right field screen in St. Louis; the screen was not there when Ruth hit 60 HR in 1927.  Also in 1932, a screen that Ruth hadn't had to contend with was erected in left field in Cleveland.  Reportedly, Foxx hit that at least three times.

 

13. Ty Cobb - 1917, 1911

 

1917: 6 HR, 102 RBI, 107 R, .383 AVG, 335 TB, .444 OBA, .570 SLG, 225 H, 55 SB

1911: 8 HR, 127 RBI, 147 R, .420 AVG, 367 TB, .467 OBA, .621 SLG, 248 H, 83 SB

 

     The best of the dead-ball hitters compiled his best seasons in 1911 and 1917, and although it may be surprising that I don't place them higher than twelfth, remember that the dead ball era rewarded consistent excellence over single-season heroics.  Sabermetrically, it is simply a fact that a singles hitter - even one like Ty Cobb, who won 12 batting titles in 13 years - isn't as valuable in any given year as a Babe Ruth or a Ted Williams.

     Cobb's MVP season was in 1911, when he turned in the greatest offensive performance of the dead ball era, save Lajoie's 1901.  That year, Cobb also was a tremendous asset on defense, making almost 50% more plays than the league average outfielder, and he stole a league-best 83 bases (data was not kept for "caught stealing," though when the AL began recording such events it turned out that Cobb got nabbed an egregious number of times).  But in 1917, with runs scored in the AL down by almost a full run per game, his offensive performance was actually superior in relative terms - he may have been slower on the bases and less effective in the field, but even so, I'll take 1917 because of his his superior batting.

 

 

14. Rickey Henderson - 1990

 

1990: 28 HR, 61 RBI, 119 R, .325 AVG, 282 TB, .441 OBA, .577 SLG, 65 SB

 

     Before the offensive explosion of the 1990s, Hendu posted an incredible season in 1990 - back in Oakland, with the tumultuous years as a Yankee behind him, the Style Dog settled into a zone that began right around the 1989 post-season: I happened to be personally witness 5 of the most incredible games ever played in the 1989 ALCS.  Hendu dismantled the hapless Toronto Blue Jays, hitting .400 and slugging 1.000, stealing eight bases, going 6-15 with 7 BB.  In the World Series, he took apart the Giants next - 9-for-19, 2 triples and 3 steals in four games.

     He kept pounding in 1990, getting on base at one of the highest clips seen in a generation, and doing unprecedented things once he got on base.  he stole 65 bases, got caught just 10 times, and would have been an even greater steal threat except for the fact that he had Carney Lansford, Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire behind him.  This was the year that Cecil fielder hit 51 HR, clearing the half-century mark for the first time since George Foster in 1977, yet the difference in slugging percentage between Henderson and Fielder was only about two home runs.

 

 

15. Mark McGwire - 1998, 1996

 

1998: 70 HR, 147 RBI, 130 R, .299 AVG, 383 TB, .473 OBA, .752 SLG, 162 BB

1996: 52 HR, 113 RBI, 104 R, .312 AVG, 309 TB, .468 OBA, .730 SLG, 116 BB

 

     Do you remember where you were on September 8, 1998?  Big Mac didn't just pass Maris, he lapped him.  And the power aside, his 162 walks tied Ted Williams for the second highest single-season total ever, behind the Babe in 1923.  That meant that Mac was on the bases in almost every other plate appearance - his OBA was the fourth highest since 1962.  And the other players that attained those heights in OBA (Wade Boggs in 1988, John Olerud in 1993 and Edgar Martinez in 1995) had nowhere near the racking power that McGwire demonstrated.  The result was one of the most productive offensive seasons ever.

 

16. Al Rosen - 1953

 

1953: 43 HR, 145 RBI, 115 R, .336 AVG, 367 TB, .422 OBA, .613 SLG, 85 BB

 

     This wasn't the famous 1954 squad that won 11 games and went to the World Series (only to lose to Willie Mays and the New York Giants) but the offense was just as good.  Powered by Al Rosen and Larry Doby, they scored 77 runs, trailing only the Yankees - and did it playing in cavernous Cleveland Stadium, with its spacious foul territory and generous power alleys, which then extended 385 feet.  In 1953, Cleveland Stadium depressed run totals by 13%. 

     But no ballpark could contain Rosen.  He missed the Triple Crown by a single base hit, losing the batting title to Washington's Mickey Vernon.  But he led the league in every other hitting category - home runs, RBI, runs scored, on-base average, slugging percentage, total bases, runs created and runs created per 27 outs - while playing a decent third base.

 

 

17. Stan Musial - 1948

 

1948: 39 HR, 131 RBI, 135 R, .376 AVG, 429 TB, .450 OBA, .702 SLG, 79 BB

 

     Stan the Man never led the NL in home runs, but the contact-hitting machine won 7 batting titles during his career and assembled three MVP awards (1943, '46, and '48) in the space of six seasons (one of which he spent in the military), and then runnered up in 1949, '50 and '51, making for an MVP run that was unmatched in the game's history until Barry Bonds came along in the 1990s.  In the post-war years, discussion as to who was the game's best hitter revolved around two names: Ted Williams and Stan Musial.  In the 1960s, there was equal support for both; in fact, in a poll of 260 writers, broadcasters, owners, players and umpires in 1955, Musial - not Williams or DiMaggio - was voted the best player of 1946 to 1955.

     Somehow, Musial's star seems to have faded, while Williams has risen - perhaps that's due to the passage of time giving Williams' accomplishments more weight, or perhaps it's simply a matter of Williams' on-field petulance and Musial's gentlemanly demeanor fading into the past.  Perhaps Musial had to be seen to be fully appreciated.  At any rate, Stan the Man was a perennial All-Star, with 22 seasons in the bigs and 21 straight selections.

     In this, his third MVP performance, he led the National League in RBI (the first of two times he would do that in his career) with a career high 131, and his 230 hits were also a career high.  The league batting average that season was just .261, slightly below where it was in the late 1990s, but Musial still hit .376 to win the batting title by 43 points - he also came within one home run of a Triple Crown.  

 

 

18. Tris Speaker - 1912

 

1912: 10 HR, 90 RBI, 136 R, .383 AVG, 329 TB, .464 OBA, .567 SLG, 52 SB

 

     The league batting average was .265 back in 1912 but the standard deviations were much higher (about 40 points in the AL, versus about 29 points today), with certain stars outperforming the mean batting average by a large amount.  This was true for a number of reasons related to the greater inequality of talent in the majors back then - the exclusion of black ballplayers, the smaller number of teams coming from cities with smaller populations than exist today, and the geographic concentration of baseball in he northeastern states all served to limit the talent pool.

     So in 1912, Tris Speaker hit about 3 standard deviations above the league mean, which is roughly what a .365 hitter would do today.  Pretty good, though that sky-high .383 batting average (which trailed Ty Cobb's .409 and Joe Jackson's .395) in context doesn't seem so stratospheric.  he trailed Jackson in total bases, Cobb in slugging percentage, and Eddie Collins in runs scored.  Nevertheless, he put together a terrific all-'round offensive performance, essentially matching Cobb's run created numbers that year.

     Where he was unmatched was in his fielding.  Perhaps the most influential fielder ever, he revolutionized defensive configurations by playing a shallow center field - as a result, he terrorized base runners by registering 35 throwing assists (the second highest of the century) and making 9 double plays.  His quickness and terrific reflexes allowed to track back on balls that were well-hit, allowing him to make 30% more plays than a league average center fielder, despite Fenway's cozy dimensions.  Over the course of the season, there is no telling how many runs he saved with his glove - according to Total Basball, he leads all outfielders in fielding runs over his career, followed by Richie Ashburn, Max Carey, Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente.

 

 

19. George Brett - 1980

 

1980: 24 HR, 118 RBI, 87 R, .390 AVG, 298 TB, .454 OBA, .664 SLG, 15 SB

 

     Just before the All-Star break in 1980, George Brett was hitting .337 when he strained ankle ligaments trying to steal a base; however, he got hot in July and even hotter in August, going 4-for-4 on the 17th to reach the magic figure of .400.  Because he only played in 117 games, his batting average was more volatile than usual, and he was able to mount batting streaks when he would move dramatically towards the .400 level.  With two weeks left, he slumped but finished strong (10-for-19), ending the season at .390; he also led the league in slugging (.664) and, to absolutely no one's surprise, was named MVP.

     His 118 RBI in 117 games was the first time that a player topped one RBI per game since Ted Williams and Vern Stephens did it for the Red Sox in 1949, and his .390 batting average was the highest since Williams in '41, and he also provided Gold Glove defense at third base.

     1980 was also the year Brett put the Royals on his back and took them to the World Series.  From 1976 to 1978 the Royals lost three straight playoffs to the Yankees despite Brett's three-run homer in 1976 and his three consecutive homers off Catfish Hunter in 1978.  In 1980, the Royals broke the playoff jinx against the Yankees; in Game 1, Brett homered, and in Game 3 he hit an upper deck home run off Goose Gossage to win it.  Although the Phils beat KC in a six-game Series, Brett homered and went 9-for-24 in the Series.

     (In 1985, Brett turned in another superb season.  The Royals finally won their championship, as Brett starred offensively and defensively; in the LCS, he dismantled the Toronto Blue Jays, and in the World Series, he destroyed the St. Louis Cardinals - he went 4-for-5 in Game 7, robbed the Cardinals of five potential hits and went 10-for-27, scoring five runs.

 

 

20. Willie Mays - 1955, 1965

 

1955: 51 HR, 127 RBI, 123 R, .319 AVG, 382 TB, .400 OBA, .659 SLG, 24 SB

1965: 52 HR, 112 RBI, 118 R, .317 AVG, 360 TB, .398 OBA, .645 SLG, 9 SB

 

     A terrific all-'round player with the traditional five tools par excellence, Willie Mays nevertheless failed to put together a single season that ranks in the top handful all-time.  In part, this was because he played in an era when offensive numbers were often severely depressed - between 1963 and 1968, when Mays was in some of the prime years of his career, NL teams scored about 4 runs per game, which was a quarter of a run less than they had in the mid-Fifties, and a half a run lower than in the late '40s when Stan Musial was in his prime.  Mays also was a consistent, durable player but not the explosive offensive force that Ted Williams or Mickey Mantle became.

     But it is also because Mays was never the on-base machine that Ruth, Williams and Mantle were.  His career on-base average of .384 is solid, but still almost 100 points below Williams and Ruth, 37 points below Mantle (who played in a much tougher ballpark, in a league with almost the same run production over his career as Mays') and 10 points below DiMaggio.  As a result, his RC/27 outs numbers are far lower than those other greats.

     Still, he had three seasons that may qualify as one of the greatest of all time.  As a 23-year-old, he put together an MVP season in 1954, with 41 HR, 110 RBI, a .345 batting average and a league-high .667 slugging percentage.  Many feel that this was his best season, and they may be right.  But in 1955, I believe he had just as good a year - he had just as good a year, maybe even better.  Although he lost the MVP vote to the Dodgers' Roy Campanella, and lost the batting title to Richie Ashburn, he had more total bases (382 vs. 377) and reached base 3 more times.

     But his baserunning and his defense was where he really showed signs of improvement in 1955: he stole 24 bases, against just 4 caught stealings, up from 8-5 in his MVP season, and while his defense had been put on display in the '54 World Series, he made his mark in 1955 as the premier fielder in the game, along with Ashburn.  His 23 throwing assists (up from 13 the previous year) was a league-high, and would be the only time that he led the league in that category.  He handled almost 3 defensive plays per game, leading the league in range factor for the first of three times, while the league average center fielder handled 2.30.

     In 1965, in a league with severely depressed offensive stats (by a half run per game below what 1954 and 1955 had been like) he posted league-leading totals in on-base average and slugging percentage.  Based on offense, Mays actually did better relative to his league in 1965 than he did in 1954 or 1955; but his baserunning had suffered with age (he stole just 9 bases) and his defensive range and deteriorating throwing arm had turned him into a merely above-average outfielder.  Also, while in 1955 he was the lone All-Star on an otherwise unexceptional Giants team, by 1965 he had been joined by Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, Warren Spahn and Gaylord Perry.

 

 

21. Joe DiMaggio - 1939, 1941

 

1939: 30 HR, 126 RBI, 108 R, .381 AVG, 310 TB, .448 OBA, .671 SLG

1941: 30 HR, 125 RBI, 122 R, .357 AVG, 348 TB, .440 OBA, .643 SLG

 

     The 1939 Yankees may be the finest team ever assembled, capping a dynasty that won four straight World Series championships.  The mantle of leadership passed from Lou Gehrig to Joe DiMaggio sometime during the 1937 season, when the sophomore hit 46 HR, drove in 167 RBI, and hit .346, and playing a terrific center field.  By 1939, an illness-ridden Gehrig would retire and it would be Dago who would carry the dynasty forward.

     He did so despite missing over a month with a torn calf muscle.  He turned in a terrific season of hitting, helped create a winning culture in a lineup that produced from every slot, and was the best defensive outfielder of his day.  In terms of offensive performance, DiMaggio's 1939 and 1941 are pretty close - a case can be made for the latter because of the The Streak, and because the league ERA was about a half run lower, but I'll take '39 because of the impact he had in a shortened season to lift his team to victory after Gehrig's tragic retirement.

 

 

 

 

 

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